Several years ago, I met Jackson Katz at a fundraiser for the film “Hijacking Catastrophe.” He was featured in a few films by Sut Jhally and the Media Education Foundation about masculinity and violence, and I was making a fair amount of noise about this association, too; so Sut introduced us, and we started talking about masculinity-messages that were used by political campaigns. These are messages that spotlight the masculinity (defined as the ability to kick-some-ass, to humiliate the enemy, and to set the world right through redemptive violence), and-or impugn the masculinity of one’s opponent.
Jackson described a Texas billboard he has seen during the Bush-Kerry election contest that featured a cowboy boot alongside a plastic shower shoe (called in the vernacular, a flip-flop). Not only was the pun apparent, it was reinforced by the phallic columnarity of the boot, standing erect, and the outline of labial folds made by the inverted-Y thongs of the now receptive flip-flop. Sexual aggression versus sexual receptivity. In men’s prisons, this distinction determines who will be seen as real men (jockers) and lady-men (bitches). Apparently, the same trope functions effectively in the wider world of public relations and electoral campaign strategy.
A popular put-down these days – one that has been enthusiastically adopted regardless of age, ethnicity, or class – is, “I’m gonna make you my bitch.” On popular television programs, I have even seen this used by women – addressed to men – as a way of doubling the male’s humiliation.
No polemical sortie is more effective during any election campaign than putting a male candidate’s masculinity – defined as aggression, even the ability to take life – into question. He is “soft” on crime, or he is “soft” on “welfare queens,” or “soft” on terrorism, or “soft” on foreign policy.
I call this penile politics.
During last night’s “debate” (if that is what we call these alternating sound bytes), Obama had an uphill climb after some fatigue or distraction had misled him into a torporous passivity during the preceding “debate.” His performance (puts me in mind of that pomo business of “gender permformativity”) was lackluster; he lacked aggression; he was too soft.
[None of this has much to do with actual policies, since neither candidate is actually considering such sideshows as policy during an election. Policy talk is tactical, not representative of any real intent, and largely determined by managers who groom and coach and drill each performer to make the most of the latest focus group research. Both will fall in behind the money after the game is over. But I digress.]
Since a debate affords no opportunities to pose with chainsaws or guns, however, the next best thing is a body count. In this, Obama enjoys a tremendous advantage in penile politics. Obama earned his bones within hours of assuming the presidency by ordering drone strikes that killed at least 20 people (combatant status unknown… to this day). But Obama secured that most important probative accoutrement for masculinity – a trophy – midway through his term; and this was the trump card last night in the penile politics follies of 2012. Obama made the point, “Osama bin Laden is dead.” He, of course, points this out a lot – often to the wild chants of “USA!” by Obama supporters, who just four years ago were incensed at George W. Bush (apparently for aesthetic reasons, since the actual policies of Obama have been extremely similar to those of Bush, and often more aggressive at expanding wars and effacing civil liberties).
If only I had the resources, I would set up a public information website that tracks penile politics. It would sift through political talk all over the US and abroad, seeking out these direct references to dominator-masculinity in puffing up one male candidate or throwing the masculinity of an opponent into question.
Women, of course, are already at a disadvantage – being biologically vaginated; but the answer has been, in the case for example of Hillary Clinton, former candidate and now Secretary of State, to out-man the men in bloodlust. Secretary Clinton had no problem voting for every war that has come along, and she personally supervised the US actions surrounding the coup d’etat against the democratically elected government of Honduras. If you don’t mind killing people, honorary masculinity is waiting for you, sisters! Yay, liberal equality!
Spin-meisters have already given the “debate” to Obama. The bin Laden trophy is big penis points.